How Color Film Originally Rendered People of Color

Pro Tip: the latest emulsions of Kodak Portra were designed to be scanned. We recommend Portra 400 more than almost anything else out there.

Pro Tip: the latest emulsions of Kodak Portra were designed to be scanned. We recommend Portra 400 more than almost anything else out there.

The image above is from the modern emulsion of Kodak Portra 400. As you can see, it renders the shadows and the highlights pretty darn well. But it took a long time for film to get to this point.

Film, though still in use with some photographers today, wasn’t always so forgiving. The world originally worked with sepia and then black and white. When color film was developed, it didn’t have such a strong dynamic range according to an educational video recently produced by Vox. So in fact, the details in the faces of people of color (black, brown, etc.) were often very muddled. Indeed, Vox says (quite literally) in their video that it was originally developed for white people–and this problem happened between the 1940s and 1990s.

The changes to film came for many reasons: not only because of how it worked with folks of color but also because when photographing darker objects like wood or Hershey’s Chocolate, it wasn’t easy to pick up the details of the product.

To solve the problem, a team started working with a computer system that balanced darker skin tones and lighter skin tones individually.

Vox’s video does a great job of explaining it all right below.